When 25-year-old Mohammad Sohail Ahmad’s father was handicapped in an accident in 2015, Ahmad was on the verge of quitting school. He was then in class 10 in Karnataka’s Bidar district. His father, a former driver, could no longer support his family and also pay for Ahmad’s tuition and lodging expenses.
It was then that a friend introduced him to the Free Coaching and Allied Scheme (Naya Savera), one of the many flagship initiatives sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs. The programme paid his fees, housing and food expenses, which came to around Rs.70,000 a year. In the 2016 Karnataka CET, Ahmad was ranked 25. Six years later, Ahmad has completed his MBBS degree and is preparing to become the first-generation doctor in his family. Speaking to Frontline, he said, “I could not have reached this stage without the assistance I received from the government.”
Ahmad is one of the millions of students who have benefited from the scholarship programmes of the Ministry of Minority Affairs. Abdul Subhan, managing director of Falcon Institute in Karnataka, is one among the many who have ensured that a section of students studying there, who cannot afford to pay the fees, get access to the scholarships.
“Many students from the minority group [referring to Muslims] would earlier get only Arabic education in madrasas. With the help of schemes from the Minority Ministry, we have been able to transform their lives,” he told Frontline.
In November 2022, however, the Centre cancelled two scholarships of the Minority Affairs Ministry—the pre-matric scholarship for students from class 1 to 8 belonging to minority communities and the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF).
The government, while cancelling the pre-matric scholarship, said that the Right to Education Act (RTE Act) covered compulsory education up to class 8 for all students. And the scheme in its new form only covers students of class 9 and 10.
Smriti Irani, Union Minister for Minority Affairs, explained the government’s move to scrap MANF in the Lok Sabha. “Since the MANF scheme overlaps with various other fellowship schemes for higher education implemented by the government and with minority students already covered under such schemes, the government has decided to discontinue the MANF scheme from 2022-23,” Irani said.
The MANF is a five-year financial assistance scheme for students of six notified minority communities—Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Parsi, and Sikh—for M.Phil and PhD programmes. It covers all universities and institutions recognised by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and is implemented by the Minority Affairs Ministry through the UGC.
The decision to discontinue the scholarship is particularly worrying for Muslim students, who have the lowest educational attainment levels among all socio-religious categories (SRCs). For instance, N.S. Abdul Hameed (28) lost his father while doing the last year of his BA degree from the University of Calicut. He was expected to take over the family’s finances as the eldest son. But he wanted to pursue a film-making course at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia and paid his tuition fee with help from a professor. After his Masters, Hameed opted for a PhD in 2019. “This became a possibility only because of the Maulana Azad fellowship,” he told Frontline.
The story of a 28-year-old PhD student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, who requested anonymity, is identical. “In my family, I am a first-generation learner. Since I also have to provide for my family, I am totally dependent on the fellowship and without it I won’t be able to finish my studies,” he said.
The TISS scholar added: “I had to find my own resources so far for my studies and the only reason I joined the PhD programme is because of MANF. I received the fellowship for four months and now it has been pending since August. I have borrowed money from friends to pay my fees and meet daily expenses in the hope that I can return it when I get the fellowship.”
Although the Finance Minister has assured Parliament that existing beneficiaries will continue to get the fellowship, it remains unclear when they will receive the amounts due.
A. Suneetha, Senior Fellow and Coordinator of Anveshi Research Centre for Women’s Studies in Hyderabad, said that many students who planned to enter research would have to rethink their future because of this decision.
“Discontinuing MANF signals to the minorities that their presence in higher educational spaces is not necessary. It also signals that the country belongs to the majority, which is a message that the ruling dispensation has been conveying repeatedly,” she told Frontline.
“The cessation of this fellowship will contribute to the assault on the education of Muslim women, which began in Karnataka, and on the rise of young, educated, and persuasive minority women,” she added.
A report and a Ministry
In 2006, the 403-page Sachar Committee report was published, detailing the social, economic, and educational standing of Muslims in India. It found that their circumstances were worse than those of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. Simultaneously, the then Manmohan Singh government acceded to the long-pending demand for a Ministry of Minority Affairs, which was carved out of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Slowly, the ambit of the Ministry grew.
Six minority groups, including Muslims, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis, and Sikhs, were notified. India is home to 300 million people from minority communities. Muslims constitute the largest, followed by Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Christians, and Buddhists.
There have been six Ministers of Minority Affairs, but now, for the first time, the Minister does not belong to any one of the minority groups represented by the Ministry. The BJP’s Smriti Irani has been holding additional charge for the Ministry since July 2022; she took over from Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi. Budgets for the Ministry have been slashed just as important scholarships have been cancelled.
Naqvi, who was Minister of Minority Affairs for the longest period (2016-2022), recently completed his tenure as Rajya Sabha MP. The BJP did not renominate him even though he is one of the few well-known Muslim names in the party. As Minister, he gave importance to minority groups other than Muslims as well.
As per the 68th Round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) data, Muslims account for the highest proportion of out-of-school children (4.43 per cent) in the country. The data also found Muslims lagging on development indicators of education, gender equality, and workplace participation.
One of the main ideas behind the formation of the Ministry of Minority Affairs was the educational upliftment of the Muslim minority through scholarships, following the Sachar Committee’s recommendations, which the UPA government took up in its first tenure. Next in line was skill development, the beneficiaries of which were largely women, and this was the focus of the UPA-II government.
The Ministry is a separate entity from the National Commission for Minorities, which was set up under the National Commission for Minorities Act of 1992. While the National Commission for Minorities is tasked with safeguarding the rights of minorities and addressing grievances, the Ministry is charged with the development of minority communities.
In March this year, the Congress MP Mohammad Javed from Kishanganj constituency in Bihar accused the BJP government of discrimination in fund allocation for the development of minorities. He suggested that the government do away with the Ministry of Minority Affairs entirely.
Speaking to Frontline, Javed said that the mandate and scope of the Ministry had been steadily reduced after the BJP government came to power in 2014. “The UPA government in 2014 sanctioned Rs.136 crore for Aligarh Muslim University Centre, Kishanganj, but only Rs.10 crore has been released. We have been protesting peacefully for the last many sessions but with no results.”
K. Rahman Khan, a veteran Congressman and a former Minister of Minority Affairs (2012-14), said that prior to the formation of the Ministry there was no department to cater to the discrimination faced by minorities. “The Social Justice and Empowerment Ministry would sometimes pick up issues relating to minorities, but there was no dedicated department to look at their grievances. There was rampant discrimination that needed to be addressed,” he told Frontline.
The Ministry declares on its website that its mandate includes the “formulation of overall policy and planning, coordination, evaluation and review of the regulatory framework and development programmes for the benefit of the minority communities”.
Khan served as the Minister of Minority Affairs from 2012 to 2014. He worked closely with the idea with which the Ministry was established. “The Constitution says that in cases of discrimination, the government should come up with affirmative action. The Ministry is part of the affirmative action and should not be seen as charity for minorities,” he pointed out.
During his tenure as Chairperson of the Karnataka Minorities Commission, Khan’s proposals led to a door-to-door assessment of the socio-economic status of minorities, which resulted in a 4 per cent reservation for them in State government offices and educational institutions in 1993. The BJP, according to him, is now asking to abolish this reservation.
Meanwhile, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has demanded that the Ministry of Minority Affairs be scrapped altogether. In 2017, VHP member Surendra Jain reportedly said that having a separate Ministry for minorities created a “false feeling” that Muslim and Christian communities were being “prosecuted”. The VHP believes that one National Human Rights Commission is enough for the protection of all citizens.
Withering under BJP rule
Salman Khurshid, former Minister for Minority Affairs from 2009 to 2012, told Frontline that he too had not been convinced about the usefulness of the Ministry until he took charge. He then realised that it could be effective in expanding the ambitious social safety net of the UPA government. “We were constantly balancing equity for minorities with careful downplaying of separateness without destruction of identity,” he said.
Khurshid pointed to the sharp change in the functioning of the Ministry after 2014. “The far-reaching impact of the extensive scholarship programmes, the development of minority concentrated districts, and the immense possibilities of the Equal Opportunity Commission have all sort of withered away,” he said.
Referring to Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s statement that India was a heaven for Muslims, Khurshid said: “Indian Muslims hold India very dear and have been devoted to its triumph no less than any of their brethren. That is what makes them sad, even deeply concerned, when short-sighted politicians and rabble-rousers target them psychologically and even physically. We have many ambitions today, but making India a heaven for all, including minorities, would be the noblest dream.”
- Millions of students have benefited from the scholarship programmes of the Ministry of Minority Affairs.
- In November 2022, the Centre cancelled two scholarships of the Minority Affairs Ministry.
- The scholarships cancelled are: the pre-matric scholarship for students from class 1 to 8 belonging to minority communities and the Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF).
- The decision to discontinue the scholarship is particularly worrying for Muslim students, who have the lowest educational attainment levels among all socio-religious categories (SRCs).
- As per the 68th Round of the National Sample Survey (NSS) data, Muslims account for the highest proportion of out-of-school children (4.43 per cent) in the country.